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  • Written by Steve Cash
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Written by Steve CashAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Steve Cash

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On Sale: May 30, 2006
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-49340-8
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Steve Cash created “an absorbing [and] intriguing saga” (The San Diego Union-Tribune) in his debut novel, The Meq. Outwardly indistinguishable from human beings, but with abilities no human can claim, the Meq search for their lost history and face a mysterious prophesied reckoning. . . .

It has been thirty-eight years since Zianno–known as Z–turned twelve. In appearance, he has not aged a day. Like all Meq, Z has become accustomed to a near immortal existence, possessing an uncanny ability to recuperate from injury and resist disease. Like only four others of his kind, he holds one of the fabled Stones, the Stone of Dreams. These bearers believe it is their destiny to guide the Meq toward and through the Remembering, where it is said that they will recall their long-forgotten origins and purpose.

But the rogue Meq assassin called the Fleur-du-Mal threatens their efforts and their lives. Pursuing rumors of a lost Sixth Stone, he is intent on finding the legendary talisman and eliminating anyone, Meq or human, who stands in the way.

Z and his allies–Opari, Sailor, Geaxi, Nova, Ray, Mowsel, Carolina, Jack, and others–embark on a desperate quest spanning decades and continents to track down the stone before their lethal adversary gets to it first. Along the way, every belief they have about themselves will be challenged and shaken–and a new, even deadlier enemy will arise.

Excerpt

1

BIHARAMUN

(Day After Tomorrow)

Where are you looking? Through a window, from a bridge, down a well, over the rainbow, out of a mouse hole, into the light? Where are you looking? Or, rather, what are you looking for? Out there, somewhere, at some time, do you see a wish fulfilled, a dream come true, a simple affirmation and clarity of that which we cannot speak? Look closely. Can you see the day after tomorrow? Do you recognize it? Will you ever? It is approaching.

The date was March 9, 1919, and it was snowing. We were taking the train down from Chicago to St. Louis and as we crossed the bridge spanning the Mississippi, the sun’s light was fading fast. The water below us looked dark, darker than I ever remembered, and deep under the low light and falling snow. I was in the aisle seat in the back row of our compartment. Opari was sitting next to me. She sat in silence with her head turned away, facing the window. Suddenly she made a trilling sound with her teeth and tongue, then whispered an ancient word in slow repetition. “Amatxurlarru,” she said. “Amatxurlarru.” The word was haunting. Her careful pronunciation was hypnotic and sounded somewhere between song and prayer. I had never heard the word before, but I knew it was Meq.

“What does it mean?” I asked. I was looking past her, through the glass, speaking to her reflection.

“It is from the Time of Ice,” she said. “Great rivers, like this one, were givers of all life and death. The phrase is only spoken when one crosses a river that is a Mother to many others.” She paused a moment and I assumed she was returning to events, stories, people and places, adventures and wisdom, passed down to her from a time so distant I could only imagine it. She went on, “The word, both in dreams and in real life, means ‘the Mother bleeds.’ ”

A few more seconds passed. I watched the snow while the train tracks rattled underneath us. Finally, I managed to say, “Really.” It was neither question nor statement, and I was trying once again not to show my relative youth and ignorance. I know now that time and the passing of it, the difference in ages and the awareness of it, should not be a problem when you are in love, but these things have taken me a lifetime to learn, let alone accept without wonder.

Ahead, just past the western end of the bridge, the lights of downtown St. Louis were coming into view. Opari said, “This is your birth city, is it not, my love?”

“Yes,” I answered. “It is that . . . and many other things.” I continued staring out the window, but not at the falling snow, or St. Louis, or even the great Mississippi River. Instead, I gazed into the reflection of two beautiful black eyes, understanding then and there that I will always desire to do just that, as long as I am on this Earth. I felt the presence of her inside me the same way I had seen, for a timeless second, my own mama and papa look to and through each other, also on a train crossing a river, in 1881.

To my right, directly across the aisle, sat my oldest friend and confidante, Carolina Covington Flowers. She was almost fifty years old now, although a stranger would never guess it. She was smiling and staring through the window. Her long hair was pulled back and a few strands of silver and gold hung loose, framing her face. She wore a long black skirt and a simple white blouse buttoned to the neck. A green woolen shawl draped around her shoulders. Her only grandchild, the baby Caine, slept peacefully in her lap. As I watched, she silently wiped a single tear from her cheek. I started to ask if anything was wrong, then decided against it. There was nothing wrong and there was nothing I could do. Sad, happy, maybe both, maybe neither, it was more likely she was only experiencing the same thing I had been thinking about all day, ever since we left Chicago—return. And not just return to anywhere, but return to St. Louis.

The train began a slow, noisy turn to the left, preparing for our approach to Union Station. I glanced ahead at the others and a thought occurred to me that I’d been putting aside and ignoring for weeks. It concerned a situation at least four of us had always been warned to avoid, especially by Sailor. Opari, Geaxi, Nova, and I each had a Stone in our possession and we were all traveling together. The Stones carried by Geaxi and me had been stripped of their priceless gems long ago in Vancouver, but the Stones worn by Opari and Nova were still intact. Like four points on a compass, their Stones held a tiny blue diamond on the top, a star sapphire on the bottom, and lapis lazuli and pearl on each side. The Stones themselves were black and egg-shaped. Sailor had made it clear that the Gogorati, the Remembering, was much too close at hand, less than a hundred years, for anything awkward to happen. Accidents or errors of any sort by any one of us were unacceptable. Period. Although Sailor himself was currently unavailable and following a fear or vision only he could see, I knew he was right, and the reasoning behind his warning was still sound and significant. I made a silent promise, in deference to Sailor, to quit inviting “anything awkward.”

And yet, except for the few traveling with us and a few more spread throughout the world, everyone else—all the others, the Giza—saw us only as they always had: as a troupe of twelve-year-olds, probably related. So be it. We were inside the great station already and St. Louis had never been so loud and alive, urban and big—a true city.

Within minutes we came to an abrupt and final stop. Everyone in our compartment stood at once, reaching for great coats, fedoras, mufflers, and scarves, bracing for the weather outside and filling the aisle completely, front to back. I glanced at Carolina and she silently mouthed the words “Let’s wait.” I nodded in agreement and looked up, trying to catch the eye of Willie Croft, who was sitting with Geaxi. Ahead of them, Nova and Star sat together, as they had for most of the trip since leaving England. But all were out of sight, impossible to see through the shuffling crowd.

Then Carolina shouted, “What about Nicholas and Eder?” Caine was awake and staring at her with wide-open brown eyes, startled by the sudden volume in her voice. She was concerned about her late husband, Nicholas Flowers, and Nova’s mother, Eder Gaztelu. Both Nicholas and Eder were in coffins stowed away in another compartment. St. Louis would be the final stop on their final journey. I yelled back that Willie had taken care of it, but I assured her that we would check on it before we did anything else.

“Good,” she said, smiling down at Caine. “Oh,” she added, craning her neck so I could see her better, “then I’ll tell Owen Bramley to only worry with the luggage. He and Jack will be looking for us.”

Opari tugged on my arm gently and whispered in my ear, “Jack is Carolina’s son, no?”

“Yes, but I’ve never met him.”

“How many years is he?”

I thought about it for a moment, then laughed to myself. So much had happened in the last few months, I nearly forgot Opari was still learning about Carolina and her family, not to mention the entire Western world. We were both learning, especially about each other. However, there was one thing we had not yet discussed—the Wait. I always felt that once we’d arrived in St. Louis and were settled in Carolina’s home, we would have to discuss it. I looked forward to it. Opari was over three thousand years old and still perfectly comfortable in a twelve-year-old body. On my next twelfth birthday, I would be fifty. Even now, I have trouble trying to articulate the intense, paradoxical, and unique power of the Itxaron, the Wait, the very essence of the Meq.

“Is the answer a laughing one?” she asked.

“Probably only to me,” I said, then gave her the answer. “He’s twelve, but he gets to turn thirteen in April.”





After the crowd thinned out, I could finally see ahead to the front of our compartment. Geaxi, Willie Croft, Star, and Nova had also remained in their seats. Geaxi turned and caught my eye, then rose out of her seat, putting on her black beret and walking swiftly back toward me, easily avoiding everyone going the other way. Somewhere on the trip west from New York, she had begun wearing the same clothing that she had worn when I first met her in 1882—black leather leggings and a black vest held together with strips of leather attached to bone. It was unique attire for anyone, but especially so in 1919 on the body of a twelve-year-old girl. Her dark eyes shone bright and she seemed to be almost smiling.

“It is a fine feeling to be back in your city, young Zezen,” she said.

“It’s not my city, Geaxi.”

“Oh, but you are mistaken, even more than you know.”

“How is that?”

“Because this is a truly American city,” she said, “and you, young Zezen, are truly American, agree with it or not, as you prefer. You will come to love this city, though I suspect you have this feeling within you now.” She paused and smiled, then added, “Even more than you know.”

I thought about what she was saying and wondered why she was saying it. Then I remembered Geaxi’s birthplace. “When was the last time you visited Malta?” I asked, not knowing whether Geaxi would take offense or not.

“That is different,” she replied. “My home as a real child was a simple farm with an olive grove and a few buildings, all long gone and erased from the landscape by change and circumstance.”

“But don’t you want to go back, even if nothing’s there?”

“Yes, I do, and I will . . . someday.” She winked once, then laughed, leaning down and whispering, “When I have the time.”

I glanced out the window at the bundled, busy, loud throng of people coming and going within the immense space of Union Station, and all at once everything seemed more than familiar. I laughed and said, “Then let’s get off this train and go home!”

“Right you are,” Carolina said. “Let’s go home.”





Owen Bramley, much to my surprise, was on time and already there to meet us. In fact, we almost collided with him as we stepped off the train. He had been running from car to car along the platform, looking frantically inside every window for a sign of us. Star, carrying Caine inside the old leather jacket that Willie had given her, was the most excited among us and stepped down first, leaping out with a small scream and a big smile. Owen Bramley nearly trampled her, coming hard from the other direction, but he caught himself and grabbed the handrail of the train door at the last possible moment. Star had cut her hair short on our trip west, mimicking the style of Nova, and she looked even younger than her true age of nineteen.

“My God,” Owen Bramley said, astonished by what he saw in front of him. He took in a breath, then shook his head, staring into the living eyes of the daughter of Carolina. “Remarkable,” he said, “simply remarkable.”

Inside Star’s jacket, Caine turned his head to stare at this new face and voice. “You are Owen Bramley,” Star said. “I know it, I know you are. You have to be.”

She stepped to the side of the stairs leading down to the platform. The rest of us fanned out behind and around her.

“Yes, I am, young lady, and I am just as sure that you are Star. I can barely believe it, but there you stand.” He watched each of us gather around Star. When his eyes fell on Carolina, he said, “My God, it is so good to see all of you.” It was obvious in his eyes that he meant what he said, and clear to me that he was more than relieved to see her returning.

He wore a long trench coat with several buckles and belts, and he was hatless. Fresh snow covered his head and shoulders. His hair was still red, with only a few more streaks of gray than in New Orleans, the last time I’d seen him. His face seemed about the same, except older, of course, and he was even more freckled across his forehead, cheeks, and nose.

“Hello, Owen,” I said. “You look well.”

For the first time since I had known him, Owen Bramley was speechless. He had been expecting us, but the reality of seeing us in person overwhelmed him. He simply stood still, staring at all of us and shaking his head. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, his blue eyes were bright with understanding. After a few moments, he stammered, “I . . . I don’t know what to say, Z.”

“Hello would be a good start, Owen.” It was Carolina. She gave him a big hug and kissed him on both cheeks, then asked, “Where’s Jack?”

“Why, I thought he was right here,” he said, turning suddenly and looking behind him.

“Well, he’s not here now.”

“It’s all right, Carolina,” Owen said, giving her a knowing wink. “He’s not alone.”

“Ah . . . I see,” she said with a smile. “Good.”

Then Owen Bramley caught sight of Opari for the first time. She was wearing one of her ancient shawls across her shoulders and a burgundy scarf around her neck. He seemed startled, almost spellbound by her presence and natural beauty. “I don’t believe I know you,” he said. “I’m certain we’ve never met before.”

“My name is Opari,” she said, looking up at him. “Your name I know from Z and Carolina.” She smiled and Owen Bramley instantly became her friend and constant admirer.

“Owen,” I broke in, “why don’t you help the porter with the luggage while Willie and I take care of something else.”

“Right, right,” he said. “Let’s get going then.”





Willie and I left the others in order to make arrangements for the off-loading of the coffins. I played the part of the silent kid and let Willie do the talking. Months earlier at Caitlin’s Ruby he’d stopped wearing his British uniform, in which he was never completely comfortable, and now, in corduroy slacks, wool sweater, and tweed jacket, he looked much more like the “real” Willie Croft. With his tousled red hair, casual charm, and soft British accent, he had helped make all our travels and troubles along the way much easier, especially through customs, which is always a little tricky for us. He was still head over heels in love with Star, which also insured his constant concern and attention to our welfare, and even though his love for her was honest and genuine, to watch him when he was around her was always comical, bordering on pathetic. However, his feelings never affected his watchful eye or awareness of our situation, whatever it might be. And he was good at directing attention away from the Meq when there were several of us traveling together, as we had been since leaving England. Individually, the Meq are excellent at blending in almost anywhere, but if we are together we draw attention from time to time for being so alike among ourselves, yet very different in cast and carriage from other children. Willie was intuitive in seeing this revelation dawn on a stranger long before they saw it themselves. His various uses of empathy and fantasy were equally and easily distributed. People were ready to give Willie all the help he needed while asking few, if any, questions. Afterward they would feel that whatever they had done to assist him must have been the right thing to do.

“Well, I suppose that’s it then,” he said. We were walking rapidly to catch up with the others. His tone was somber and he was looking straight ahead.

“Almost, but not quite,” I answered. “Carolina wants to bury them both in the ‘Honeycircle’ in back of her home. I’m sure it’s not legal.”

“The what?”

“It’s hard to explain. I think you better see it for yourself.”

Willie gave me a quick glance, raising an eyebrow. “If you say so, Z . . . and don’t worry about the legal bit. I’ll take care of it.”

“Thanks, Willie . . . for everything. I mean it.”

“Nothing to it, Z. It’s my pleasure.”

As we hurried to catch the others, we had to pass through the Midway, a 610-foot-long, 70-foot-wide concourse that connected the train shed with the Grand Hall. Halfway through I suddenly noticed Geaxi standing by herself and staring at a poster attached to the wall. I spoke to her, but she didn’t respond, so Willie and I walked over to see if anything was wrong. Of course, she had sensed our presence long before we got to her. She pivoted slowly and glanced up at Willie, as if she’d been waiting for him.

“What kind of aircraft is that?” she asked, pointing toward the poster.

Willie looked closely at the image on the poster, which was a biplane flying between clouds and banking sharply to the right. Under the image, along the bottom of the poster, were the words “Pilots needed—contact Marcellus Foose, East St. Louis, Illinois—if you can fly a Jenny, you can fly anything.”

“I believe that is a Curtiss JN-4,” Willie said. “The Americans like to refer to it as a ‘Jenny.’ Very reliable, but often difficult to handle, I’m told.”

Geaxi made no reply for several moments, then said simply, “I see.” She adjusted her beret slightly, and without saying another word or looking behind, started walking toward the Grand Hall. Willie turned to me for an explanation. I shrugged, then smiled and shook my head, once again realizing there is no explaining the inscrutable Geaxi Bikis.





With Geaxi in the lead, we made our way through the thinning crowd and into the Grand Hall. Willie stared up at the huge, barrel-vaulted ceiling and Romanesque architecture.

“Magnificent structure,” he said. “Never seen anything like it.”

“No, neither have I,” I said and meant it. The building was, and is, a wonder.

“Over there,” Geaxi shouted back at us, pointing toward our little troupe, all gathered around a shoeshine stand against the wall. The luggage was stacked on a large cart off to one side. Carolina was waving for us to come quickly.

When we reached them, she made the sign to keep quiet with her finger pressed to her lips, then leaned over and whispered to me, “Mitchell is teaching Jack about the shoeshine business.”

I squeezed between the others to get closer. What I saw was a handsome, young black man sitting in one of the raised chairs on the stand. He was wearing a tuxedo, complete with white tie, starched white shirt, and white silk scarf around his neck. A floppy, old snap-brimmed cap rested at an angle on his head, the only incongruity in his whole wardrobe. He was looking down and carefully watching a boy about my size, who was buffing the man’s patent leather shoes to a high sheen.

“You got it, Jack,” the man said. “Now whip the rag in the air and wrap it around my heel. Give it a good one-two, then snap your fingers and say, ‘That’s all, mister. There’s a shine that’ll stand the test of time.’ That old rhyme used to get me a tip for sure.” Then, as if on cue, the black man raised his head and found my eyes, breaking into a broad and generous grin.

“Mitchell Ithaca Coates,” I said.

“It’s still ‘Mitch’ to you, Z.” He paused and looked me up and down. “How you been, man? Did you get the bad guys?”

“Yes and no,” I answered. “You know how it goes, Mitch—it’s complicated.” I smiled back at him, then turned and reached for Star’s hand, pulling her forward so he could see her clearly. She held Caine, who had gone back to sleep, close to her chest. “I finally found this one, though.”

Mitch removed his cap slowly and marveled at what he saw in front of him, just as Owen Bramley had. “Well, don’t that beat the devil,” he said. “We been waitin’ for this day, but sometimes, well, sometimes I thought maybe . . . well, never mind what I thought.” Then he rose out of his seat and said to Jack, “Turn around, son, and take a look at your very own sister.”

For some reason the boy was slow to respond, as if he was shy or too afraid to look. Then I felt a nudge in my back and Nova pushed me aside and stepped forward. In gentle and even speech, she said, “It’s all right, Jack. It’s all right.” When he heard Nova’s voice, the boy turned immediately and gazed up at Star, the sister he had never known, the sister who had been kidnapped by the Fleur-du-Mal and taken to Africa, and the sister whose disappearance had driven their own father mad with loss and despair.

“Hello, Jack,” Star said quietly. She seemed to have an intuitive understanding of his shyness and waited for him to reply.

I watched the boy carefully. We were almost the same height and weight. He was wearing a cap similar to the one Mitch wore, which he slipped off and held with both hands. He had his father’s dark good looks and his mother’s gray-blue eyes flecked with gold. When he saw that Star had the same eyes, his expression brightened, as if their kinship suddenly became real to him; he really did have a sister and she was living, standing right in front of him, even speaking to him. I think he made an instant and unexpected compromise with a very old and very private enemy. “Hello,” he said with a half smile. “I’m Jack.”

Star laughed out loud. “I know, I know. Mama told me all about you.”

Mitch laughed along with her, rising out of his chair and brushing Jack softly on the back of the head. “Come on, everybody—I got two Packard Twin-6 touring cars parked outside. And I’m sorry, Miss C., about keepin’ Jack from seein’ you on the train, but I couldn’t resist the temptation when I passed by the shoeshine stand. I mean, shoeshinin’ was my life!”

“I know that, Mitch,” Carolina said. I looked up at her. She was laughing and crying at the same time. “It’s all right.” She stepped forward and put her arms around Star and Jack, who continued blushing and trying to hide under his cap. “Let’s go home,” she said.

We crammed our luggage and ourselves inside the cars, slipping and sliding in the dark and the snow, which had lessened, but was still falling. After leaving the traffic of Union Station and Market Street, the trip to Carolina’s house became a magical homecoming, with our own laughter and Mitch’s singing filling up the silence of the snowy streets.

“How long is this snow supposed to last?” I asked Owen Bramley, just as we pulled into the long drive leading up and under the brick arch of the big house. Every window glowed from the inside. I thought of a lighthouse, seen from the sea at night, after a strange and difficult journey. Only one word came to mind—“welcome.”

“They say until the day after tomorrow,” Owen said, “but who really knows?”

2

PINPILIPAUXA

(Butterfly)

Often when a child first catches sight of a butterfly, he or she may ask the question “Where did it come from?” Then someone, usually someone older and presumably wiser, might relate the incredible yet true story of the humble caterpillar and its metamorphosis into the angelic, magical butterfly—dancing on air, a completely new form, shape, dream, and destiny. That part is easy. Then the child may ask, “Does the butterfly remember being the caterpillar?” After that, it is never easy.

A week later the snowstorm was already a distant memory and had been replaced by an early spring breeze, coming from the southwest and filling the bare trees with a promise of new life and new beginnings. The aftermath of the Great War, followed by the Spanish Flu, had hit St. Louis hard, with thousands of local young men lost in Europe and no one knows how many, young and old, men and women, lost to influenza at home. It seemed the whole city wanted to forget the pain and loss, and forget quickly. Our odd little family was no exception.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this change in attitude took place upon our arrival at Carolina’s that first snowy night. We all gathered in the kitchen after unloading our luggage in the oversized living room. Owen Bramley was going to sort out who was staying in which room and save Carolina the trouble of having to deal with it. As we entered the kitchen, I noticed a familiar figure standing by the stove, though her figure was slightly fuller and her hair was now entirely gray. She turned and stared at each one of us as we sat around the long table in the center of the room. She was Ciela—premium cook and the last of Carolina’s “working girls” still living in the house. She had an anxious look on her face and held a large wooden spoon in her hand. When she caught sight of Star entering the kitchen, laughing about something with Nova, Ciela did the same as Owen and Mitch had done, only she almost fainted. She dropped the spoon to the floor and backed up against the stove, putting her hand to her mouth and stifling her own exclamation, “Madre de Dios, Madre de Dios,” which she couldn’t stop repeating. Carolina would tell me later that for all these years, Ciela had continued to feel responsible for Star’s abduction and disappearance. She kept the guilt bottled up inside, exclusively her own, a cross that God had given her to bear. In one split second it all fell away, and it was nearly too much for her.

“Ciela, please, sit down, get your breath, relax.” It was Owen and he helped her into one of the chairs around the table.

“Madre de Dios,” she mumbled again, staring at Star. “A miracle, a miracle,” she said in English. Star walked over and knelt down next to her, taking Ciela’s hand and holding it. Then the tears came and Star embraced her, letting her release fifteen years of blame and shame.

Another good and necessary change occurred three days later when we buried Eder and Nicholas in the “Honeycircle.” The snow had melted away quickly and Carolina wanted to have the ceremony as soon as possible. On the day after we arrived, during a long walk together through Forest Park, she had told Jack the sad news about his father, whom he had not seen in five years. Jack took it as best he could, she said, and only mentioned a single regret—that he never got to say good-bye. She told him she felt the same way and to compensate for it, they were going to put Nicholas to rest, along with Eder, in the “Honeycircle,” a place more sacred to them than any cemetery. Jack liked the idea and even asked Carolina if he could help, which he did, clearing the space and digging the graves with Owen, Willie, and me.

After our work was done and the coffins were in the ground, Carolina mouthed a silent prayer over the grave of Nicholas, and Nova stared up at the sky above where her mother lay, then walked over and kissed something standing in the center of the “Honeycircle.” I had seen the object once before, far to the west of St. Louis, in a meadow high in the hills above Kepa’s camp. It had been her father’s most prized possession. It was Baju Gastelu’s ancient Roman sundial.

Carolina, Jack, and Nova all felt a sense of completion after the informal ceremony. I could see it in their faces. It was a solemn occasion, but there was not a trace of melancholy or remorse. They had each said good-bye in the best way they knew how, and the ones they had loved were still close to them, underground in the private garden of their own backyard.

Late that same night, I asked Nova how the sundial had come to be in the “Honeycircle.” She was in one of the upstairs bathrooms and the door was open. She stood in front of the mirror by the sink, washing the heavy eye makeup from her face. Her eyes were clear, but she looked surprised at the question, as if everyone knew about the sundial. I reminded her that Ray Ytuarte and I left on our long search for Star the day after she arrived, in the summer of 1904. There was no sundial in the “Honeycircle” at that time. Then, suddenly, I remembered a particular moment when Ray and I were leaving. I remembered seeing two large wooden crates, stacked together under the stone arch in the driveway. When I asked if they were his, he’d said enigmatically, “Don’t ask.” It had to be the sundial. Nova confirmed my theory. Eder had insisted that they bring the sundial from Kepa’s camp and Owen Bramley and Ray were responsible for the dismantling, crating, and shipping.

Then Nova did something rare for her. Nova continued to be a great mystery to me. With her Egyptian-style cosmetics and mascara, eccentric dress and manner, she often seemed to be in her own world, or at least her own version of it. But just then, she looked honest, innocent, vulnerable. She turned and held both my hands, glaring at me with her dark eyes. “What about Ray?” she asked, then in a kind of whisper, “Do you think about him like I do, Z? Do you think about him at all?”

I paused and drew in a deep breath. She had touched a nerve, though I didn’t want to admit it. I knew where his bowler hat was—just inside my closet—but I still had no idea where Ray was. “I think about him every day, Nova. Every single day.”

“So do I,” she said, turning back to the mirror and wiping away a tear, pretending it was mascara.

A few days later an early spring breeze came, bringing with it the wonderful, eternal feeling of renewal and the desire to forget and start again. We all welcomed it and it was good, but for Nova and me, there would still be one thought, one person, one question that both of us knew we would never forget.

* * *



Opari had not met anyone like Mitch Coates in all her long life. “There was one man, an Indian prince in Vishakhapatnam, he reminds me of in some ways,” she said, “but Mitch has, how do you say, a ‘joie de vivre’ that is all his own.”

“That is exactly how you say it,” I told her. “And I agree, except for one man you never met—Solomon J. Birnbaum.”

“Yes, Carolina has said the same.”

We were in the bedroom Owen had assigned to us, on the second floor at the far end of the hall. His own unusual bedroom and living quarters were behind the door directly across from ours. It was late Saturday morning, the first day of April. “What was the prince’s name?” I asked, curious because at that point in time, Opari seldom mentioned her incredible history or anyone in it.

“I do not recall the exact name, though I remember several seconds were required to pronounce his complete and formal name and title. I referred to him as ‘Skylark.’ He was an heir to great wealth and possessed the intellect of Pythagoras, along with a rich personality, which Pythagoras did not have.”

“You knew Pythagoras?” I asked with a smile.

“Yes, briefly, however I was in flight to the East and could not linger. I recall the prince was also a ‘Listener.’ ”

“A what?”

“A translated word for a member of a . . . bitxi . . . how do you say?—strange Hindu sect. They believed in organized, no, I should say symphonic ‘listening’ to the spheres for secret meanings, all of them gathering outdoors atop boulders and cliffs to the west, sitting silently for days, ‘listening’ for answers to the most mystical questions of the Veda. In Sanskrit they were known as Abisami, or simply the ‘samupa.’ They would sit grouped, facing all directions, but in such a manner as to never catch the eye of another. Skylark was a known master in this mute music and futile prayer. Their gatherings began in the season when Sirius rises in the east. Sirius, the Dog Star, the star the ‘samupa’ called ‘The Leader.’ According to Skylark, it was sacred to them. I have even heard rumors that remnants of the sect may still exist.”

“How did you meet Skylark?”

“That answer is for another time, my love. The real matter here is that Skylark became the only true Giza friend I could trust. It may have been because he had spent time with one of us—a great deal of time, enough to learn many more things about the Meq than most Giza ever know.”

“Who was the one in ‘one of us’?”

“Zeru-Meq.”

“Ah . . . of course.” I thought back to the brief time I’d spent with him in China—not time enough to know him well, but I knew I owed him a great deal. He had led me to Opari.

She said, “Mitch makes me laugh; he is full of contradiction and surprise, yet he is a Giza I could trust. Much like Skylark.”

Mitch had awakened us earlier that morning. Just before sunrise, he knocked softly on our door in a distinctive rhythm, then slipped inside, holding a lit candle and whispering, “I want to invite both y’all to a party, a tribute to someone down at my place. Tonight.”

It was a surprise, but not a shock. Mitch had been coming and going at all hours, beginning the day after we arrived. In a week I learned how important he was to Jack and how indispensable he was to Carolina daily, while running his various enterprises all night. Opari was used to the random nature of Mitch’s visits; still, we did wonder when, or if, he ever slept. He wore a tuxedo, which was not unusual, but what he held behind his back was. Wrapped separately in white linen handkerchiefs, he slowly brought forward two long-stemmed white roses, their petals streaked with orange and red. Each rose was about to release into full bloom.

He lifted the candle and stiffened his posture. He began reciting dramatically. “These roses are for you, two of three, and for the rest, go seek the one who waits for thee, the one who wears the other of the three.”
Praise

Praise

Praise for The Meq

“Vivid personages, a startling premise richly elaborated, and . . . derring-do and dastardly schemes.”
–The Washington Post Book World

“Mesmerizing.”
–The New York Times

  • Time Dancers by Steve Cash
  • May 30, 2006
  • Fiction - Fantasy
  • Del Rey
  • $14.95
  • 9780345470935

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